An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Reading About Presidents

Jan 18, 2012 by

Abraham Lincoln

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Interestingly enough, several recent books about Presidents have appeared. Bill O Reilly has written a book about the assassination of Lincoln. Why do you feel there is current interest first of all, in Lincoln, and secondly in his assassination?

I feel that Lincoln is still vitally important to us because he saw the nation through its greatest crisis. For many Americans, these uncertain times today call for the type of inspired leadership that Lincoln provided. And I think his assassination continues to be of interest because we want to understand how it was that such a great leader could be done in by one individual in such a dramatic fashion.

  1. Lincoln, obviously governed in quite difficult times. Are people turning to Lincoln for some insight into leadership or his approach to leadership during these difficult stressful times?

I think that is precisely why interest in Lincoln seems to peak at difficult times in our history. When times are more benign, we can direct our gaze to lesser sorts, but crisis situations focus our attention on those leaders who proved up to similar daunting tasks.

  1. Are there books that you would recommend about Abraham Lincoln- and first of all, his Presidency and secondly his assassination?

The O’Reilly book is interesting reading, but it has numerous factual errors and as such I can’t really recommend it. Eric Foner, on the other hand, recently wrote an excellent book on Lincoln titled “The Fiery Trial.” Regarding the assassination, the best book by far is “Manhunt,” by James Swanson.

  1. Another contemporary commentary has written about George Washington-renewing interest in our first president. Why, in your mind, do you feel we are still reflecting back on this great leader?

Washington still resonates with us today because we need heroes and he certainly fit the bill. He had some flaws, but he was exceptionally good in the critical areas that encompass leadership: self control, good judgment, strength of character, and coolness under pressure.

  1. What are some books that you would suggest about George Washington , the man, and secondly, George Washington, the President?

I would say the best recent book about George Washington the man is “The Ascent of George Washington,” by John Ferling. The best book on his presidency is “His Excellency,” by Joseph Ellis.

  1. There is still another book, this one written by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge on American heroes.  What in your mind, is Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy, and his contributions?

While William McKinley gets some credit, Theodore Roosevelt was really the first American president to vigorously assert the prerogatives of the office since Lincoln. He was decisive, energetic, and had a vision for an America where all the conflicting interests could be brought together in a working relation. From the Pure Food and Drug Act to the expansion of our national park system, Roosevelt gets high marks for making America a better place.

  1. While Henry Cabot Lodge may be less well known, and was never elected President, his contributions are many- could you list some of his most important contributions?

A certain group of historians praises him for resisting Woodrow Wilson on the Treaty of Versailles. Lodge did not want the US to sign the treaty, primarily because he found the League of Nations objectionable. Historians who believe that the United States should not be bound to collective action through a world government applaud his stand on that issue. Of course, there are other historians who denigrate Lodge for that very reason.

  1. In your opinion, why is it important to study some of our more famous Presidents, as well as some of our lesser known Presidents ?

Every president (with the possible exception of William Henry Harrison, who died 30 days into his term) can tell us something about our past. The things they did and didn’t do, the successes and the failures, all can instruct us about the qualities necessary for effective leadership. Some presidents simply were not up to the task (such as Martin Van Buren), while others were the beneficiaries of fortuitous developments (James Monroe immediately comes to mind). But they all are important in our understanding of American History.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

These were good questions!

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